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A Medical Missionary’s Environmental Epiphany

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyDr. Paul Brand was the son of British missionary parents in South India where he grew up. He returned to England to study medicine, then went back to take care of people with leprosy in India, mainly doing reconstructive hand and foot surgery — some 3,000 operations over many years. He also spent some time in Ethiopia doing similar things, and finally ended up as director of the only leprosy hospital in the U.S., located in Carville, Louisiana. I believe that hospital closed about ten years ago, after Dr. Brand retired. He died in 2003. His son happened to be a student of mine at Louisiana State University (LSU), so that is how I met him. Medically he is credited with having established that leprosy is not the direct cause of decay or necrosis of the hands and feet universally observed in people with leprosy. Rather the damage to extremities is self-inflicted, resulting from the loss of sensation and inability to feel pain. Without pain there is no feedback to tell you that you are damaging yourself. Brand developed routines and practices to help avoid self-inflicted injuries, and wrote a book entitled Pain: the Gift that Nobody Wants. He also wrote the standard medical textbook on hand and foot surgery.

LSU is a big football school, and an assistant coach invented a super-cushioned helmet that much reduced head pain on impact. This was thought a great thing until Dr. Brand pointed out that head pain was what kept football players from breaking their necks. Would you rather have a headache or a broken neck?

So much for background. I want to focus on a paragraph that Dr. Brand wrote in 1985:

I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge. But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?

What led him to such a statement? Living in India, Ethiopia, and Louisiana — and witnessing the same thing in each place.

Rice Terrace

Dr. Brand prescribed practices to help his patients avoid self-inflicted injuries. He realized that similar principles apply to managing our ecosystems (photo by Alain).

In India he received his first lesson in soils management at age six, from an old Indian farmer who reprimanded him and some other boys who carelessly broke the little turf dams on the terraced rice paddies along the mountain side while chasing frogs in the wet level terraces. The old man scooped up a handful of mud and said, this soil will feed my family year after year. But the soil has to stay up here. The water wants to carry the soil down the mountain to the river, and then to the sea. Do you think the water will bring it back up? No, they answered. Will you be able to bring it back up? No, grandfather. Will rocky hillsides without soil feed my family? No. Well, that is why the dams must be cared for. Do you understand? Yes, grandfather, we’re sorry. Returning to this area many years later Brand observed barren rocky hillsides — the result of government programs to use ex-prisoners to grow potatoes, but without first teaching them the wisdom of the old farmer.

In Ethiopia most of his leprosy patients were farmers, and that brought him again to the farms where he witnessed terrible erosion where there had once been trees and grasses. The Nile carried Ethiopian soil to Egypt. Farms grew poor crops, and the fields were full of large stones. But the stones were not so large that they could not be levered up and rolled to the edge of the field where they could have made useful walls instead of obstacles to tilling and harvesting. Why were such simple improvements not made, Brand asked. The peasants explained that if they made their fields look good and productive they would lose them to the ruling class. Someone from the city would claim that his ancestors had owned it, and the peasants had no chance in court. So injustice, as well as water and wind, contributed to erosion of the soil. People with leprosy who returned to the eroded farms did not have a good prognosis even if their leprosy was now under control.

The leprosarium at Carville, Louisiana, was just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi river. It dated from before levies had been built to contain the river. Therefore all the buildings and houses were built on stilts — maybe four to eight feet high. For a week or so each year water swirled under your house, but you got around in a skiff or pirogue. (Nowadays a fiberglass bass boat with a 200 horsepower Mercury outboard engine is the standard mode of transportation in Louisiana bayous.) Meanwhile the water deposited its silt before returning to its banks, transferring Midwestern topsoil to the Louisiana delta or rebuilding the eroding marshlands or barrier islands. Now the river is contained between levies to eliminate annual floods, so the silt is deposited in the river bottom rather than on the land, necessitating higher levies. Or the silt flows all the way out into the Gulf of Mexico and over the continental shelf, no longer rebuilding coastal marshlands that are now disappearing — and would have served New Orleans as a buffer against Hurricane Katrina. In addition to silt, the Mississippi carries fertilizer and pesticide runoff from Midwestern farms into the Gulf, creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey. “Cheap” corn and soybeans do not include the costs of lost seafood in the Gulf.

So in light of these experiences in Dr. Brand’s life, let us reread the first part of his statement:

I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge.

A physician treats our internal organs — heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, etc. in order that we may live longer and better. But our lives depend on external organs as well, environmental life support systems. What good are our lungs if there are no trees and grasses capable of photosynthesis? What good is our digestive tract if the land won’t grow food? What good are our kidneys if the rivers run dry, or are toxic? I think it is not much of a stretch for a good physician to realize that health and wellness now depend as much on care of our collective external organs as on our individual internal organs. Reconstructing a patient’s hands and feet, and then sending him to slowly starve on eroded farmland is at best a partial cure.

The other part of Dr. Brand’s statement, his questions, is also important:

But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?

Environmental destruction, like other sins, is not just the result of ignorance. There is ignorance to be sure, but mostly we know what we are doing. We are caught up in structures that demand fast growth, rapid turnover, and quick profits. And that is facilitated both by ignorance of environmental costs, and by willingness to shift those costs on to others. Simple denial also plays a role — pie-in-the-sky savior fantasies of space colonization and belief in perpetual motion schemes — technological Gnosticism, I call it.

We all seem to suffer from a symptom of leprosy, we do not feel pain in our external organs and structures (our environmental extremities), and therefore do not stop the behavior that is damaging them. In part this is because often the benefits of the damaging behavior go to the people responsible for the behavior while the costs fall on others — the painful feedback is diverted to people who did not cause the damage. The fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico pay the cost of pesticide and fertilizer runoff caused by careless farming. Environmental costs have been shifted from those who caused them to those who did not.

It would be easy to say, “Well this is nothing new, just the same old prophets of doom in modern dress — there is nothing new under the sun.” But there is something new — the earth is now relatively full of us and all our stuff. In my lifetime world population has tripled, and the populations of livestock, automobiles, and refrigerators have vastly more than tripled. Meanwhile the size of the earth has stayed the same — so it is a lot more full. And the growing scale of the economy means that environmental and social cost-shifting is ever larger and more dangerous.

Consequently there are many more environmental problems than soil erosion. I focused on that because it was what led Dr. Brand to his realization. Other, newer environmental problems, many of them interrelated, include climate change, biodiversity loss, ozone layer depletion, overpopulation, oil depletion, etc. Not to mention modern warfare. I’ll spare you a complete litany.

Many environmentalists look at this list and despair. Humans, after all, they say, are just one more animal species and will over-consume and over-reproduce until they provoke a collapse — just like deer on an island or bacteria in a flask. But Christians like Dr. Brand, and other thoughtful people as well, cannot take that attitude. Yes, we are a part of the Creation, and share many commonalities with our fellow creatures, and we are kin to them by evolution. But we are inescapably the creature in charge — the one that bears the capability and responsibility of the imago Dei. Dr. Brand was an example and witness to that truth.

Do We Have the Courage to Bring the 800-lb Gorilla out of the Corner?

by Jimmy Fox

Jimmy FoxThe planet’s ability to provide useful materials and absorb wastes (its biocapacity) is deemed essential to sustain human life. Yet consumption of those useful materials (our ecological footprint) per person is rising at an alarming and unsustainable rate. According to the Global Footprint Network, humanity currently uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets worth of biocapacity per year. Stated another way, it takes the Earth 1.5 years to regenerate what we use and waste in a year. Here in the USA the average person’s ecological footprint in 2010 was approximately 8 soccer fields per person per year — the largest of any nation — while the global capacity in the same year was estimated to be about 2 per person. What this tells us is we Americans are not living within our means. In addition to deficit spending we are, in fact, deficit living. And other countries are not far behind.

ecological footprint scenarios

Our ecological footprint — which path will we take? (Image courtesy of Global Footprint Network).

Today this reality is a conundrum for anyone with an ecological conscious, particularly an American in the field of conservation. Current production and consumption of energy (for our bodies and machines) directly and indirectly create a suite of problems from loss of habitat to pollution. For conservationists, the 800-lb gorilla in the room is our society’s pursuit of economic growth fueled by conspicuous consumption. Quite simply our country’s gross domestic product (GDP) serves as a self-evident indicator for loss of nature and liquidation of our shrinking resource base. As conservationists, we need to bring this gorilla out of the corner and help friends and neighbors understand the problem. It’s time to have frank conversations about the need for intelligent consumption, recycling and reusing, and stabilizing human population.

Some will say this is too radical and not an issue a conservationist should be wading into. I would argue nothing is more important or in need of leadership. In the past Olaus Murie, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson spoke to the matter. In 1948, articulating the need for a land ethic, Aldo Leopold wrote, “Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.” Approximately ten years later, Olaus Murie pressed for the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and believed it was emblematic of, “the real problem of what the human species is to do with this Earth.”

Today, Dr. Curt Meine (author of Correction Lines), Dr. Julianne Warren (author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey), and Dr. Brian Czech (author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train and Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution) are Americans in the field of science writing and speaking passionately about the real problem. I encourage you to follow their work. If reading books isn’t your cup of tea or you’re short of time, check out the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s documentary, Green Fire and Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill’s call for a steady state economy in Enough is Enough, or if you’re into Hollywood entertainment, watch Wall-E with the kids for an exploration of where we could be headed.

Of course there are critics inside and outside the conservation community. The status quo is tenacious. Calling for change is uncomfortable. We have to be prepared for the allegations. Like Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to abolish slavery while being a slave owner, we have to acknowledge we own a piece of this mess while we move humanity forward. We must admit we conservationists are contributing to the problem with every aerial survey, vehicle, item of clothing, glass of wine, or electronic device we buy (even the six-year old MacBook Pro I’m using to write this post). Acknowledging our contribution to the problem isn’t enough — otherwise it’s just rhetoric. We must act and model the behavior we hope for ourselves and others. Consider these three broad actions to get started:

1. Break the problem down. Become familiar with what contributes to the problem of an oversized ecological footprint. There is a mountain of literature on the unsustainability of human population growth and consumption of natural resources. Figure out the myriad connections between the nation’s pursuit of higher GDP and the conservation challenges we face today.

2. Identify solutions. There are so many ways we can lessen our ecological footprint from the individual level to the national pursuit of a steady state economy. Start at home and the workplace. Make an inventory of the wasteful practices and figure out how to make life and work more sustainable. Don’t overlook local, state, national and international solutions that could use our support and advocacy.

3. Exhibit leadership. The solution to this problem will require all of us to adapt. There are no technical fixes that will save us, no easy remedies and no authority figures leading the way. Solutions will be found through our interactions and relationships with others. Find the courage to share your concerns about the current reality and speak passionately about your aspirations. Talk about what we can do to close the gap between our unsustainable lifestyle and a sustainable one — and do it.

I realize this issue isn’t much fun to think or talk about. It’s personal. It calls into question what we do and our devotion to nature. It forces us to think about how our actions today will negatively affect future generations. As a conservationist, it’s much easier and more socially acceptable to treat the injury than call for a cure. We can busy ourselves with species protections and habitat restoration. But if we value nature — if we value humanity — business as usual is unacceptable. As conservationists we are documenting the outfall of the problem and have a moral obligation to sound the alarm. Ask yourself, would Rachel Carson ignore the gorilla in the room were she alive today? Ask yourself, if we won’t act, why should we expect anyone to? Now is the time for leadership. Leadership means having the courage to address the ultimate source of our conservation problems.

Bringing the 800-lb gorilla into a public forum isn’t easy. But like most hard work, it’s useful.

Jimmy Fox advocates for intelligent consumption as a citizen of Fairbanks, Alaska. He is a Fellow of the National Conservation Leadership Institute and serves his country as a distinguished manager in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He also promotes leadership in conservation at cognizantfox.com.

Five Christmas Gifts that Keep on Giving

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_Photo‘Tis the season for gift giving, and if mainstream economists are right, then the best possible gifts are the ones that contribute the most to economic growth. In recent years, despite financial shenanigans and outsized stimulus spending, GDP growth has remained below 3% per year in the U.S. As the environmental and social limits to growth have asserted themselves, consumption of exponentially more stuff has become exponentially more difficult. That’s why you might hear an economist or a politician say, “Ask not what economic growth can do for you, but what you can do for economic growth.” Fortunately there are plenty of presents you can buy right now in the 21st century that honor such 20th-century thinking. Here’s a list of five gifts that not only increase GDP directly, but also help indoctrinate the lucky recipients into the fossil-fueled, high-financed consumerist culture. Get yours while you can!

1. The holy trinity of lawn care. Why use a rake when you can crank up the decibels and the emissions? Why use a scythe when you can possess extreme RPMs of plant-shredding power? Why use a hoe when you can crush weeds into oblivion with a toxic cocktail? Any gardener will appreciate the power of this three-tool multi-pack: a gas-powered leaf blower, string trimmer weedwacker, and backpack pesticide sprayer. Imagine the gardener’s delight as he or she wages chemical and mechanical warfare on the landscape. Nature never looks better than when perfectly trimmed, blown, and sprayed. But wait, there’s more! These tools are sure to eliminate diversity from the yard and prevent it from functioning like an unwanted, unruly ecosystem. Oh what a feeling to control nature!

blower weedwacker backpack_sprayer

 

2. The dynamic duo of board games. Children of all ages can learn how the world works by using any means necessary to trounce the competition. No games teach more valuable lessons than the all-time classics Monopoly and Risk. The goal of each is straightforward, just like an uber-capitalist, imperialistic economy — amass all the spoils by vanquishing your opponents. These games have remained popular for decades because exploitation never goes out of style. For an exciting twist on standard Monopoly, try the National Parks Edition. You could end up owning Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, and eventually all the National Parks (privatizing the Parks would surely add to GDP). Then you can charge such high entry fees that you end up owning the other players too! What could be more fun than owning everything and wiping out your friends and family? And if these two classics don’t satisfy your hunger, try to secure a copy of this rare board game.

Monopoly_National_Parks_Edition_box RiskBox

 

3. Magazines that spread affluenza. Not everyone can live life as a super-rich conspicuous consumer, sipping Cristal on the deck of a gold-plated yacht on the way to a private island in the South Pacific. But everyone can read and dream about it! Fill your loved-ones’ magazine racks with the likes of Scene, Hamptons, and Bloomberg Pursuits. They can spend hour after hour learning the right clothes to wear, the right cars to drive, and the right handbags to carry. If you really want to do your part for GDP, you might consider delivering the first few issues of these subscriptions in a diamond-encrusted magazine rack.

SceneMagazine HamptonsMagazine Bloomburg Pursuits Magazine

 

4. Plastic toys that promote proper values. A stunning variety of plastic playthings populate toy store shelves these days. These two toys sport not only a hefty price tag, but also an agenda for joining the fossil fuel frenzy. With a Playmobil Cargo Ship, kids can pretend to burn obscene quantities of fuel while importing cheap goods from China and exporting recyclables and garbage from the U.S. And speaking of burning obscene quantities of fuel, children will love emulating that behavior by rolling around in a motorized toy Hummer. As a bonus, driving the Hummer will help kids avoid burning their own calories — a good start on a lifetime of health problems and medical expenses that will further add to GDP!

CargoShip ToyHummer

 

5. Junior bank account. Open a starter account for that special niece or nephew at the Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, or any other too-big-to-fail (aka unsustainably large) corporate bank that was bailed out in the financial meltdown. Children are sure to take delight in having their savings invested in junk mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps. It’s never too early to learn the lesson that you can “earn” money by doing nothing.

Photo by Alex Proimos, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Alex Proimos, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Sara Goth, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Sara Goth,Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Lite, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Lite, Wikimedia Commons

 

During this holiday season, the neoclassical economists want you to get out there and grow the GDP. On the twelfth day of Christmas, my skewed gov gave to me EXPANDING GDP!

If, for some reason, you don’t feel like following the advice of neoclassical economists, then try giving the gift of time — make time for genuine experiences with your friends and family. Or make a donation to a favorite nonprofit in someone’s name. If you feel the need to buy a product, how about a book that describes the needed economic changes?

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Too Many Jobs

by Max Kummerow

Without doubt unemployment blights people’s lives. Those who want to work need jobs. But an even more fundamental economic problem is too many people beavering away, wrecking our home planet. Politicians and economists assume population growth means more people need jobs, so the economy must grow. Better to reverse that logic, starting instead by calculating the level of output the world’s environmental resources can sustainably support. How can jobs and economic output keep growing on a damaged planet with shrinking resources?

Some economists claim that technology or human ingenuity is the ultimate resource, but such platitudes ignore the realities of technological advance. The truth is that technology both creates and destroys jobs. Labor-saving innovations often increase productivity by reducing employment. And the downsides of technology abound. Fanatics use the “ultimate resource” to build bombs. Nuclear physics gave us an energy source and medical advances, but also atomic bombs and toxic pollution. The Green Revolution that helped double or triple world grain yields relies on fertilizer made from natural gas that will eventually run out. Meanwhile, populations needing food have tripled since the inception of the Green Revolution. Growth enabled by technology puts humanity further out on a limb, increasing ecological and economic risks.

If we are so smart and technology can solve every problem, why hasn’t every problem been solved? Historians list dozens of collapsed societies. Why didn’t brainpower save past empires? Why are carbon dioxide emissions still increasing? Why, after the global financial crisis affected so many people and communities, did banks go back to speculating in derivatives? Why are a billion people stunted by malnutrition? Why are so many species going extinct? Why do war and arms races persist? And so on across a range of unsolved local and global problems.

A sign of too many jobs: this eyesore (a modular worker colony) sprouted at the Bakken shale oil deposits near Williston, North Dakota.  Photo by Ben Garvin, Reuters.

A sign of too many jobs: this eyesore (a modular worker colony) sprouted at the Bakken shale oil deposits near Williston, North Dakota. Photo by Ben Garvin, Reuters.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that even though we are counting on technology to save us, the U.S. is cutting research funding. At the same time, the cost of attending college is becoming unaffordable. In 1992 dozens of Nobel Prize-winning scientists signed a “warning to humanity” saying we should stop changing the earth so rapidly. When the world ignores scientists like Jim Hansen (NASA pioneer climate modeler), isn’t public indifference squandering the “ultimate resource?” What a contradiction: relying on science to save us and then ignoring the recommendations of our leading scientific experts.

The ecological footprint reveals that the world economy is already too big. Ecologists calculate that sustaining current levels of output would require 1.5 earths. If everyone lived like Americans, more than four planets like earth would be required. Scientists have identified nine key areas where the scale of human economies could damage earth’s ability to support us for the long run. Three of the nine “planetary limits” have already been exceeded, reducing the planet’s capacity to support human life. Current levels of economic output require drawing down planetary “savings accounts” (soils, fossil fuels, species diversity, etc.) that are rapidly being overspent and depleted.

We’re caught in a dilemma. We have too many jobs — too many people are consuming too many resources as they go about their jobs — and yet huge numbers of jobless people struggle to meet their basic needs. At the same time, policies are geared toward growing the economy with the hope of adding more jobs, while disregarding the problem of overconsumption. What can we do?

Several commonsense jobs policies could help us achieve full employment within planetary limits. In the short term we could share employment more fairly. The U.S. could achieve full employment by increasing vacation time — we get two weeks where Europeans get five weeks. We could cut back to a four-day work week, lower retirement age (say to 60), offer more part-time work or job sharing, and send more people back to school to upgrade skills. Incomes would be reduced and social security taxes would increase due to these measures, but we would enjoy more fairness in distribution of income; less crime; more leisure time; more time for family, friends and community; and improved quality of life. We might even live longer — people in half a dozen well-off European countries live two years longer than Americans.

In the long run, we must stabilize or decrease population. Society should subsidize the first child and allow a second child without penalty, but require parents who choose to have more than two children to pay the full costs of educating and providing medical care and old age support for those extra children. People who expand population take more than their fair share of everything while imposing costs on the rest of us by collectively pushing up prices for housing, land, food and energy. Crowding makes life more stressful in many ways — traffic congestion, longer lines, more competition for jobs and college admissions, higher unemployment, lower wages and higher taxes. Extra kids contribute to climate change, pollution and resource depletion. Requiring those with large families to bear the costs their extra children impose on others would incentivize responsible family planning decisions. Far from being repressive, having smaller families corrects market failure, liberates women and makes families and children better off. The world’s best educated women voluntarily choose small families as shown by the below-replacement fertility rates in some of the best educated countries.

Reversing direction to optimize the total number of jobs, rather than pursue unlimited job growth, won’t be easy. Economists must accept a major paradigm shift. Such a shift has been described in the literature for over 200 years starting with Malthus, Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. Classical economics theory included limits to growth — a “stationary state.” Sharing jobs and stabilizing population won’t solve all economic and ecological problems. Many other reforms need to be included on the agenda to achieve a steady state economy that features environmental protection and sustainable levels of consumption — reforms like a carbon tax, conservation of species diversity, and redistribution of wealth.

For such laws to be passed in democracies, the public would have to be far better informed to understand why these changes make sense. Pro-growth messages come at us incessantly from mass media, the Internet, and pro-growth lobbyists, politicians and businesses. A keystone reform will be to overhaul the way we fund our information-providing institutions. We currently use information from these institutions to make important decisions. The trouble is that much of the information is actually misinformation, because the institutions obtain their revenues from advertising that pushes the infinite-growth agenda.

Abandoning the ideology of growth so firmly embedded in economic theory, popular culture and the media will be difficult. But economic theory reform, media reform, job sharing and changing human fertility behavior will be far easier than changing the inescapable laws of physics, expanding the land area of the earth, or doing business in cities inundated by rising sea levels. Difficult is still a lot easier than impossible.